We all know the book is always better than the film – and in 90% of occasions, that’s true, especially when it’s a good book. Below I look at ten examples, and one honourable mention, that are the other way round: where the film is better than the book.
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In the list below I’ve excluded ‘books of the film’ – this is only concerned with occasions when the film was based on an already existing book. I’ve also only included pairings where I’ve both read the book and seen the film: while I’m willing to assign a high probability to the fact that both Forrest Gump and Jaws are better than the books upon which they’re respectively based, I’ve not actually read those books, so I don’t know for certain.
In alphabetical order:
Blade Runner. Philip K Dick’s original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is an intriguing and thought-provoking book, containing many elements that are either absent, or significantly simplified, in the film, including Mercerism, the keeping of animals (or their robotic imitations) and much more detail about the Voight-Kampff test. It’s worth reading, whether or not you’ve read the film, but his prose doesn’t have the same vivid intensity, compelling characters and action that make Bladerunner one of the best science-fiction films of the 20th century.
Casino Royale. The first Bond book isn’t bad – after all, it started the biggest spy franchise in history. But a villain pointing evilly at East Anglia, as he gloatingly says, ‘turkeys’, isn’t in the same league as the return to form that was Daniel Craig’s first glorious outing.
Children of Men. I’m a massive fan of P. D. James’s Dalgliesh detective stories, but The Children of Men is a somewhat strange, non-eventful and almost dream-like account of a person wandering through a depopulating England which, despite nominally being a dictatorship, seems oddly calm, bucolic and quiescent. There is conflict, but it seems incidental, and the resistant group almost gentlemanly. By contrast, the film is a searing dystopian triumph, resonant with current concerns, and with a fast-moving plot full of tension and suspense. There’s simply no contest.
Jurassic Park. The best book in this list, the best of Michael Crichton’s excellent bibliography – but Spielberg’s film is even better, a glorious blockbuster that has lost none of its power to awe and entertain three decades on. The sequels show the original is far more than an action movie, with perfectly deployed pace, tension, characterisation, wonder and a stirring sound track. One of my favourite films of all time.
Mary Poppins. An enjoyable enough children’s book, but the film is a league apart, a wonderful, funny, heart-warming romp through Edwardian London, underpinned by glorious songs and the unparallelled performance of Julie Andrews. On its third generation of children, it remains a firm favourite.
Minority Report. Another Philip K Dick entry, this time a short story, and again – like most of his short stories – one that is worth reading in its own right. It’s no surprise that Dick’s prolific imagination, set largely in the near-future, has spawned so many film adaptations. Although the film has not become a classic in the way some of its contemporaries such as the Matrix have, I liked it a lot: a clever and thought-provoking concept, well executed.
Schindler’s List. Schindler’s Ark is moving, harrowing and inspiring – as one would expect of a true account of the Holocaust, when the normal bounds of human society were violated in the most horrific ways imaginable. Considered purely as a book, however, it is quite dense: I’ve read numerous accounts of the Holocaust, both non-fiction and fiction, and this isn’t the first one I’d send someone to. The film, on the other hand, is an incredibly powerful tour de force, utterly lacking in sentimentality, that drives home the incalculable horror of the Holocaust while still leaving space for the human stories it portrays. It deservedly won seven Oscars: if you’ve never seen it, you should. For that matter, if you know someone who doesn’t know what the Holocaust is, you could do a lot worse than sitting them down and making them watch this film.
Stardust. Unlike many of the other pairings in this list, I don’t consider either the book by Neil Gaiman or the film to be outstanding. Both are enjoyable, but the film just tips it, delivering a fun, enjoyable, humorous romp slightly more effectively.
Swiss Family Robinson. I half-broke my rule on this one as I confess I didn’t actually finish the book (though I came to it as an adult, which is my excuse). As I far as I got, however, it was very worthy and pedestrian. The film, on the other hand, features pirates! And traps! And tiger traps! And wacky animal races! And awesome tree-top structures with lifts! It’s still good fun, though a little dated.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I’ll finish with the most controversial pairing on this list, for I know many people who love John Le Carre’s classic spy novel, I could never really see the appeal, on this, or any of his novels to be honest (I think I’ve read three). I’m not sure if it is the class elements that I found too alien, meaning I found it hard to really empathise with any of the characters – though I’ve read other books from that era and milieu, such as C. P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers sequence, which I loved. In contrast, I greatly enjoyed the 2011 film adaptation, which compressed the events of the book into just the right length of time, to keep my interest, while keeping the complexity of the intrigue – and making the characters ones I could care about.
The ten above are my list – I’m sure there are others, but I found it quite hard to find ten (though if I’d expanded it to ‘equally good’, it would have been much easier. But I’ll finish with one honourable mention – one where I think the book is better, but only just.
Honourable Mention: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I have at least one friend who insists that the book is better. Their argument, if I present it correctly, is that both represent superlative examples of their respective media, but that two plot elements of the film – the decision to interweave Gandalf’s capture by Saruman, rather than tell it at the Council of Elrond; and the omission of Tom Bombadil; elevate it above the book.
I can’t agree with this. I’d agree with the first part: the richness and depth of the world, and the power of Tolkien’s language is core to Tolkien’s lasting legacy, and Jackson brings Middle Earth to life in a way that is also beyond parallel: indeed, some elements of the film, notably when the grandeur of the Mines of Moria is revealed, or the first glimpse of the Argonath surpassed my own ‘head-images’. The pacing and cinematography of the film – without doubt the best of the trilogy – is also impeccable: just try watching it immediately after the lacklustre Rings of Power, and that will really be brought home!
Yet as to the criticisms, I disagree. The ‘Where is Gandalf?’ approach works well in the book; it would likely have been less good on the big screen, with the path taken by the film being more effective, but both work for their medium. And personally I’ve always enjoyed the Old Forest and Bombadil – it makes sense to take them out in a film, for timing reasons, and their loss is not significant, but it’s not better. Narratively, I might try to argue that this section shows character development (Frodo not leaving his friends), or foreshadowing (of the Old Forest), but fundamentally the defence is that they’re just fun. Even you don’t like Bombadil, against this must be set the film’s poor – surface-level, indeed – portrayal of Gimli, Pippin and (especially) Merry. But I’ll admit: it does come very close.
Fundamentally though, it comes down to the fact that, for me, an outstanding book will always be better than an outstanding film. Books are just a medium with more potential to develop thethings I value: richer, deeper, more complex, making a tapestry of a more glorious hue. If I were Spinal Tap, I’d say they go up to 11. All of which goes to show how impressive the achievement of the ten films above is, to beat out their sources!
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